2007 11 13
Students were debating. Whether our over-extending, self-powered, not remotely controlled yet increasingly networked tools might someday start sending us medium-independent messages. Start blinking their lights like they’re looking right back at us. Not whether they’ll get out of hand, declare independence, take us in whatever passes for their hands and stomp us out. That particular debate never stops. Just whether, someday, our tools might have feelings. Desires. Goals.
Heated up fast, the debating. “Of course,” insisted half the students. While the other half remained completely adamant: “No way.”
“How would we even know?” I asked them. “Do animals have feelings? Do other people?”
“No, animals don’t really have feelings,” insisted some students. "Not real feelings." At which point the debating got out of control.
“Hold on,” I said. “Let me tell you a story.” And they let me.
I started out like any other kid. Torturing bugs, frogs and pretty much anything that moved. Anything that didn’t move too fast for me to cripple. Because the way things moved when missing wings, legs or whatever assorted body parts was such great fun.
“Hey, I used to do that,” said a student.
“Me too,” said another and enthused a third, fourth and fifth.
Most of them were nodding affirmative. Almost all the males and half the females.
“I still do that!” exclaimed one last.
“What?” chorused a bunch of students and I, pretty much in unison –- “What do you mean?”
“Yeah,” he said. All smug. Proud. Eyes gleaming with excitement. “My friends and I went blowing up frogs last summer.” Then his voice turned very matter-of-fact. “We’re getting hunting rifles next year.”
Silence. Except for me banging my head against the blackboard a few times. To get the images out of my mind. The images and the memories.
“Guess I’ll get back to the story,” I said. Totally ignoring the hunter in our midst and what I felt like doing to him.
My grandfather, who had pilgrimed to the Soviet Union in order to help build communism, who had wound up fettered in a Soviet chain gang and had managed escaping and surviving his cross-countries wartime return, used to kill everything I maimed. Annoyed the hell out of my three-year-old self. Wrecking my fun like that. Tromping his feet on my miniature disability parades.
One bright morning I snuck up to and cornered a sleeping cat. Guess I was maybe five by then -– no rifle yet, but moving up to bigger game anyhow. And it was really great. Best fun ever. Made terrific hissing sounds. I had this two-fisted grip on its tail and was thinking hard how to tie some tin cans to it. A friend had said how tying tin cans to tails caused cats to flee till they died of exhaustion. Anyway. One moment it was just incredible fun and games. Next, that cat turned and laid my arm open from elbow to wrist.
I ran for my grandfather. Squealing like a slashed human. Screaming all the way what the cat had done to me.
When more or less done bandaging, my grandfather asked what set the cat off.
“Cat’s crazy,” I said. “What if it goes after some little kid? We got’ta find that cat and kill it.”
“No,” replied my grandfather. “What were you doing when the cat turned on you?”
“What was I doing? What do you think I was doing? I was playing with it.”
“Ahhh,” exhaled my grandfather. “Of course you were. Well, the cat was playing with you too.”
I fell silent. Previously, I’d screamed and shouted. Now, I began to cry. “You mean.. the way I felt when it hurt me is how they feel when I play with them?”
“That’s right,” replied my grandfather. And gentle as his voice was, his face was far wearier than I’d ever perceived. Decades later I’d begin understanding why. But not then; for at that moment my world just only began tilting. That moment I understood how hurting wasn’t right when done unto others -– and wrong only when done unto self. When I understood how always wrong it was instigating hurting. When I first understood, beyond any shadow of doubting, what it meant to be a person. The day one cat taught one human to be a person too.
“Nice story -– but what does it mean?” asked a student. Puzzled.
All of them seemed puzzled. So I told them what I thought the story meant. That even should someday our tools have thoughts and feelings, we’d not likely recognize the fact. Due to how readily fooled we are into believing ought which mimics us to be intelligent. How persistently we avoid recognizing any intelligence not entirely oriented and prejudiced as our own. How insulated and engulfed by our own technecity we’ve become. How, since bursting our food chains, we’ve accelerated gnawing the trees of living unto death. How our separation from the natural and our terminally self-involved convenience means such oblivion as to entail utter ecological obliteration.
We speak so highly of self-awareness. Not so when it comes to awareness other than of our own selves. Takes our greatest sages even to suggest we ought not do unto others as we wouldn’t have them do unto us. Never mind understanding the meaning of what others do. Never mind awareness other than of self. That’s asking too much. There’s no telling when, or even if any one of us should become so aware as to appreciate thoughts and feelings other than our own –- i.e., the thoughts we can’t help thinking and the feelings we can’t help feeling.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get taught something very basic about being a person. That cat taught me good. Not everyone’s so lucky,” I said.
Students had seemed to appreciate the action in my story. The meaning I attributed to the story, though -– not so much. Why should they -- having been so bombarded by messages of impending ecological catastrophe? Trouble with the most fatally inconvenient truths is how ubiquitously cheap they get spouted nowadays.
“But what can we do about it?” asked one student.
“Can’t say I know,” I replied. “Maybe we’ll explore that some more -– though it’s rather peripheral to what we’re supposed to be talking about.”
Anyway. It’s true. I’ve got no clue what we can do about it. Probably no one does. Not really. And not only I must feel, nowadays, much as my grandfather used to when mercy-killing the creatures I maimed. But some things have become far too obvious not to know. Ecological catastrophe extends far beyond our failing to recognize being other than our own. Yet, however persistently re-enforced, our separation from the natural is largely by oblivion. However unstoppable, it begins with submergence of our natural selves in cultures of technecity.
We can’t expect rescue from our governments. Not by regulation, legislation or completely inadequate accords like Kyoto. Our governments can reflect only us -– our terminally convenient self-involvements -- and we can get nothing better from governance than we deserve. Nor can we expect corporate bailouts. Corporations can do nothing but serve our consumptions. Nothing but supply our endlessly accelerating demanding. Any hope whatsoever of finding David Brin’s fourth way must emerge, if at all, from grass-roots.
Most likely it’s far too hopelessly late. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, of course. We should. We must. It’s likely too late only due to overwhelming odds against us even trying. For if we maintain our oblivion when it comes to the natural, the sole ecological recourse shall remain only as seen at Chernobyl.
Even just honestly trying isn’t easy. We’re too psychologically, socially, economically and infrastructurally against it. Never mind what a derelict I must seem when I try negotiating with the natural. Over the years, I’ve mostly gotten over my utter social failure relative to single-minded consumers. I can't seem to keep up with them Joneses. I can't even seem to want to anymore. But I know there’s all sorts of surveillance up at York University. I expect to get in trouble when I go digging the garbage for food. Must honestly try, though –- even if only for the principle that humans can be people too.
Few years back, I began noticing what misery it was for small birds surviving winter. There are somewhat green spaces at York University -– spaces not yet entirely trammeled. Such spaces can’t be, by any decent stretching imagination, proper or adequate habitat. Yet, birds persist attempting to survive winters there. Come harshest times, birds start flying into the concrete and glass tunnels connecting Vari Hall to York Lanes. Do they survive in there? Do they ever get out again? No clue. But I became sufficiently concerned to throw them crumbs. And their desperate enthusiasm diving between human legs to get at crumbs -– that’s what got me going.
That’s also what got me noticing all the garbage. The unbelievable waste.
There is no waste in nature.
Seagulls love pizza crust.
Where does all that garbage wind up? What’s the additional waste and cost getting it there? What’s the point razing natural habitat –- then refusing even refuse to bereaved and beggared animal kinds attempting surviving, just peripherally, about our technecity?
So simple. Just transferring some waste to where it isn’t wasted. To whom it’s totally and vitally appreciated. That’s how each overflowing bin became, for me, a potential transfer station.
Couple days every week, for about an hour, I travel bin to bin, station to station across York campus. And I totally leave campus cleaner than I find it. Inedible waste gets deposited. Edibles get shared. Not so much with squirrels, though -– they have no trouble chewing through styrofoam and rummaging garbage bins. I make sure to whistle advance warning on arrival -– otherwise, if surprised, squirrels are liable to leaping like crazed lizards.
Apple core? I’ll trick you good if you don’t treat me better!
Mostly, found edibles get shared with birds. Smaller, crumbling items for smaller birds. Anything from French-fries up goes to seagulls and geese. Often, when seagulls see how I find food in bins, they go looking for themselves. But they can’t get through the styrofoam.
C'mon Man! Stop teasing!
I’ve become fairly comfortable rummaging the garbage at York. Some know why I do it. Most don’t -– but so what? My shame at being such a loser at human modes of consumption and destruction is completely outweighed by even just trying to become more natural a person. Why even try? Impossible to accomplish anything while living in the city? Maybe not. Maybe more students up at York will begin feeding the animals. Maybe more humans can start becoming people too. There’s no hope otherwise.
[Peter Fruchter teaches in the Division of Humanities at York University. His related essay called "Acts of Salvage" (co-written with Amy Lavender Harris) appears in GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto (Coach House, 2007) and was recently excerpted in Eye Weekly.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 11/13 at 04:32 PM
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